Reviews for Walk A Lonely Street
Review by Justin Gausman, December 2020,
host of TCBCast: An Unofficial Elvis Presley Fan Podcast
and director of Never Been to Graceland
To refer to Walk A Lonely Street as merely a book about Elvis Presley would be a great disservice to what Tony Plews has crafted. It is a sweeping historical rock-and-roll epic, a true story as eminently digestible and cleverly written as a mystery thriller. The subtitle Elvis Presley, Country Music & The True Story of Heartbreak Hotel is just as important to understanding the wide canvas across time and distance that Plews uses to paint his picture.
Without question, Walk A Lonely Street is one of the most essential books ever written regarding Elvis Presley, right alongside Peter Guralnick's famous two-part biography. But those looking for a straightforward biography will not find it here. Where Guralnick wrote a definitive recounting of the events of Elvis Presley's life, Plews has written perhaps the definitive book on understanding Elvis Presley's career as an artist. Plews is clear very early on that he will be using literary techniques rather than biographical ones, and the work is stronger for it.
Plews' prose is concise but never clinical; on the contrary, it's often warm and shows great compassion or affection for the story's many characters, even hucksters like Elvis' manager Tom Parker. Plews doesn't seek to aggrandize, but merely to humanize and in doing so restores some sense of why what archetypal figures like Hank Williams or Elvis Presley were doing was all that remarkable to begin with.
My favorite pieces of Walk A Lonely Street are the chapter titles. Broken up into several hundred separate entries, often only one or two pages at a time, each chapter highlights a relevant character or scene in broadly chronological order. Immaculately researched, Plews finds and highlights connections and coincidences throughout the history of popular and country music in the early-to-mid-20th century that seem so narratively convenient one would be forgiven for initially believing they couldn't possibly be true, but upon further investigation, are in fact very real. Plews plays with expectations, uses foreshadowing brilliantly, and has made Walk A Lonely Street the first book relating to Elvis Presley that I've read in over a decade offering genuine surprises and revelations.
Those who have been long-time Presley fans and have dove into the history of the era will be deeply rewarded comparable to the way comic book movie fans are served up Easter Eggs within a cinematic universe.
As an example of my favorite: one entry is titled "Hank Snow's first American recordings." Set in 1949, the title is a literal descriptor as the chapter describes Snow, a Canadian country musician who later inspired Elvis, making his first recordings in the United States, including a song entitled "I'm Movin' On," in a session produced by RCA Victor artist & repertoire man Steve Sholes - who served in the same capacity for Presley in the 1950s. But near the end of the book, in a scene set in 1969, we read a chapter titled "Elvis Presley's first American recordings." The title takes on a different meaning as Elvis arrives at Memphis-based American Sound Studios to lay down famous songs like "Suspicious Minds," and as an aside, Plews shrewdly mentions that Elvis also "taped a song from Hank Snow" there. Elvis fans reading this review are already with me - although unspoken, we know it is the same "I'm Movin' On."
Walk A Lonely Street is full to the brim with such knowing winks and nods, all expertly alluded to without losing sight of the story at hand.
THE TRUE STORY OF HEARTBREAK HOTEL:
Because of the nature of the book, its setting, and its subject, attention is inevitably placed more heavily on the predominantly white and male history-makers, but where relevant, Plews does bring into the story people of color whose lives and contributions have too often been overlooked by comparison, such as Lesley Riddle, Johnny Bragg, Arthur Crudup, The Platters, Ray Charles and Big Mama Thornton. I was pleased to see even my favorite deep-cut influence on Elvis, "rock and soul" ballad singer Roy Hamilton get spotlighted in the book.
"Heartbreak Hotel" co-writer Mae Boren Axton, as one of the central figures of the story, receives as thorough a biographical treatment as any of her male counterparts and hers is a remarkable story in and of itself, as a woman and mother fighting to succeed in an industry run by powerful and influential men. Plews not only explores the question that has been raised in some circles as to whether she was deserving of credit for writing the famous hit, but understands the cultural flaws inherent in the premise of the question, and draws a compelling conclusion from the more comprehensive perspective of her greater life story, though is always clear his interpretation is only one.
And finally, the remarkable tragedy behind the very real end of a human life that inspired "Heartbreak Hotel" is just as vital to the overall tale as Presley's or Boren Axton's. The story of Alvin Krolik, the troubled yet fascinating man who described himself as "a person who walks on a lonely street" looms darkly over the entire book, building to a breaking point. It is the one story told in Walk A Lonely Street that cannot be found recounted as thoroughly in any other other telling, and Plews brings the receipts: photos and historical documents finally put faces to the players. I hesitate to spoil anything further as it will likely be a revelation for most readers as it was for me, even more so than all the information about Presley and country music. I will say that the final, autobiographical entry in the book, from Plews' own perspective, is heart-breaking and poetic in its simplicity given the beast of a book that precedes it.
In short, Walk A Lonely Street: Elvis Presley, Country Music & The True Story of Heartbreak Hotel joins the ranks of Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, Ernst Jørgensen's A Life in Music and Alanna Nash's trio of Elvis-related books as one of the handful of truly essential reads on the subject, and should be on the shelf of any enthusiast of early country and rock music history as well.
I cannot recommend it highly enough.